Managing The Unit Supply Chain

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The unit manager, whether combined with location or transport management functions, is the glue that holds a commercial and film project together. Susan Reynard speaks to three veterans of the field.

If the apocalypse threatens you want to be in the company of a unit manager. In addition to vast knowledge of the ins and outs of the commercial and film production industry, this is the person who heads up the team that prepares and plans for every eventuality for a range of people and equipment, each with different needs to create a highly specialised and specific work environment, and then tidies it all up again.

Robert Bentley and team-unitmanager-web

Skills Set

“There are many specialities involved – it’s a very mixed bag when it comes to explaining my job description,” says Mike Begg, location manager for First Film Unit. Now focussing mainly on commercials, Mike used to be involved in feature films during winter and commercials during summer until about ten years ago. On commercials, Mike says the unit manager doubles as the location manager, whereas on feature films this role will usually be split, with one person in charge of each department because of the extended time, greater workload and increased number of locations and people involved.

“As time went on, this became difficult to maintain because of various reasons, one of them being age and not being able to maintain the work hours required and having kids and wanting to see them grow up – having some free time to do that – as the film industry can swallow you whole if you let it,” he notes.

Deon du Plessis, location manager at Moonlighting Two Productions, has been a location manager for more than 22 years and says nothing gives him greater pleasure than to see a project through, from start to finish, until it’s on screen. He adds, “I also believe that no matter the size of the project, whether it’s a small TV show or a massive blockbuster, the same amount of hard work and energy needs to be put into it to make it a success.”

Deon says he’s always had a great love for movies and loved to travel, see new places and meet new and interesting people. “After a few years in a boring suit-and-tie job, I had a brother who was a location manager in the industry. Every spare moment I had I hung out on sets and it wasn’t long before I made the decision to join the industry,” he says.

Scope

Unit and location managers on commercials have such a diverse range of responsibilities that it necessitates incredible attention to detail plus countless contacts, finely-tuned diplomacy skills and a cable tie to hand always. “I guess I would describe myself as the cartilage between the crew and the public,” notes Mike. “We are the MacGyvers on set, the complaints department, the ‘Mr Fix-its’: there are 99 ways to skin a cat and we have to know all 200 of them.”

Robert Bentley, film location manager for Moonlighting Four Productions says there is little difference between film and commercial unit and location managers, with features often allowing more time to prepare.

The people we chat to in this feature come highly recommended by their peers. Robert puts this down to “passion for my job and a respect for the craft that each crew member brings to the set”.

Landscape

“Overseas the location departments have more crew so that there is less overtime worked,” explains Robert. “I am a member of the Location Managers Guild International and it is good to read about and speak to other location managers. The world over, location managers are having to reskill, as health and safety legislation improves we are becoming more involved, location contracts are becoming more onerous and as the industry matures it has to subscribe to a greater level of professionalism.

Deon notes, “In the UK the unit managers would manage the locations facilities and the logistics of a shoot, similar to what we do in SA. In the US, the unit manager or unit production manager does the work similar to that of a line producer and will focus mostly on keeping the project within budget.”

Read on to find out about the roles, challenges, and legacy of unit managers below. 

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